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Category Archives: Cooking Class

Cabo Cooking Class: Booked!

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Despite this pretty mild winter we’ve had in the Pacific Northwest, I’m really looking forward to our upcoming trip to Cabo. It pays to have family members who bid on ridiculous auction items like the mansion at the Palmilla where we are staying. Ok, I don’t really know if it’s a mansion officially, but it’s a grande casa for sure.

I figured while we’re there, I better scout out a cooking class, which is exactly what I did. Here is the description of what I’ll be cooking:

MEXICAN COMFORT FOODS- Foods that taste like home in Mexico include corn masa antojitos like Tlacoyos con Salsa Verde (delicate turnovers of blue masa stuffed with yellow fava beans served in a green sauce a colorful Central Mexican street favorite), Ensalada de Nopales (fresh nopal cactus salad with bright, crisp vegetables), Albondigas (savory meatball and vegetable soup) and Tortitas de Papa en Salsa Roja (crisp fried potato-cheese cakes with a red sauce)… and maybe even Minguichi (strips of roasted poblano pepper in a melted cheese sauce Michoacan style, delicious tucked into hot tortillas).  For dessert caramelized roasted Camotes (sweet potatoes) and cream.  Yum!

As I’m sure you can imagine, this Southern California native is dearly missing her daily dose of quality Mexican cuisine. So, in between sunning myself on the beach, catamaran cruises, and downing copious margaritas, I’ll be rolling up my sleeves until I’m elbow-deep in masa. Stay tuned for the blog about my adventure!

Find Yourself the Spice Monkey

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There has got to be a way for me to convince Nikita to open a Spice Monkey in the USA. First things first: convincing him to give me the recipe for the flat rice snack we had. I’m vowing to figure it out.

Today, I traveled far from Fulham to Alexandra Palace. My beginners Indian cooking class was at Nikita’s family home, and I knew upon entry that I was in for a truly authentic experience. His adorable tiny mother, Mrs. G, acted as sous chef, and despite my early arrival, they welcomed me in from the impending rain. While we were chatting, I had a look at the table that was covered in an array of colorful spices, the nucleus of any Indian recipe. Clearly, spices were going to be a large part of our conversation.

Our class took place in their greenhouse, and there were just three of us and Nikita, which was fabulous from a learner’s vantage point. We spent a solid hour pouring over the different spices, their taste, their texture, and their origins. He had everything, from dried coriander and two kinds of cardamom to mustard seeds, fenugreek, and ground red pepper. Let us not forget turmeric; my hands and nails are currently stained a gorgeous yellow hue. He even had fresh turmeric, which I had never seen nor tasted before, but it was amazing. I presumed it was ginger by it’s looks, but as they say, “don’t judge a book by its cover.”

From these spices, we created a variety of masalas. Garam masala is probably the most common and widely recognised, and in a grinder, we made our own version after toasting the different seeds in a dry pan. We also created a version that we didn’t toast at all, and it was great to be able to compare and contrast the two with our noses. Much of what we did today was sensory oriented. It was a wonderful way of getting familiar with so many spices that we have seen, heard about, or shoved to the back of our cupboards after using them just one time. One of Nikita’s biggest points was not to get overwhelmed by the options; use what you like that day, and if you leave something out (like we did a few times), c’est la vie.

Our menu today consisted of aromatic rice, Mrs. G’s chicken curry, cauliflower bhagi, potato curry, and shrikanda, an Indian dessert. I had no idea that Indians had such a sweet tooth, but evidently, that is the case, and randomly, I think the dessert may have been my favourite dish. Most people think of curry as blow-your-head-off hot, oily, and generally difficult to prepare, but I learned today that none of that is the case. In fact, with some thoughtful planning, I think an Indian feast would be the perfect way to entertain. We need to be more adventurous with our palettes in America, and it would be nice if you didn’t have to drive ten towns away to find a decent curry. I always lament that when leaving London because there are about as many Indian places here as there are Mexican joints in California. Are all of them good? Now, I think we all know the answer to that one.

Point being, don’t be discouraged when it comes to experimenting with Indian food in your own kitchen. Try your hand at it with a cookbook and only buy small quantities of the spices until you decide which combinations suit your taste best. Better yet, if you can swing it, make a trip to Spice Monkey and take a class. You’ll be happy you did. I can’t tell you how much easier it was to learn from an expert and see things firsthand. I will be back for another class with Nikita, mark my words.

For now, I’m hanging up my apron to head back to America. Next stop: California followed by a more permanent stop in Portland, Oregon. It may be time for a move into the culinary world, because with each of these classes, I realise more and more that this is what I’m meant to be doing whether it’s stirring, writing, teaching, or otherwise.

The Spice Monkey

Culinary Hopscotch Continues!

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I cannot wait for June. I just can’t. Not only are we heading to Capri to see our good friends tie the knot, but we will also be spending some time in London. 

It’s an amazing city…a favorite in fact. And despite the stereotypes about the food, I’m planning to take some cooking classes while I’m there. 

Keep your eye on the blog for the latest and greatest!

Stove-Slaving in St. Petersburg for Stroganoff & Kotlety

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Today, our journey took us into the depths of St. Petersburg on the metro, and out of the historical city centre. Exiting the metro, we’d find architecture that triggered immediate ideas of Communism; we had ascended into the projects. Real estate prices here, however, fetch surprisingly high tariffs, and we still are at a loss for an answer as to how people pay to live in this city. It is incredibly expensive.

The food, on the other hand, is quite simple. Russian cuisine is hearty to a point of insulation, and it reminds me a lot of the cuisine I had in Poland earlier this winter. In fact, some of the words are even the same, however, their translations couldn’t be farther apart. Take “pierogi” for example. During our city tour the other day, our driver, Alex, took Brady and I to a traditional Russian “fast food” restaurant for pierogi. We walked in, approached the counter, and looked around for the tender dumplings of various fillings, only to find exquisite golden pastries bursting with sweet and savory insides. Lost in translation? Apparently. Russian pierogis have nothing to do with the dumplings you’d find in Polish milk bars and in the frozen food section of Trader Joe’s. They are bonafide pastries filled with everything from salmon to apricot jam. And quite good. But I digress. The cooking class is why you are reading.

Brady (or Buh-rian, depending on who you ask) and I jumped on the metro this morning and made our way far out of the city centre. You wouldn’t believe how deep these metros are here. A picture wouldn’t even do it justice (and we tried), and if that wasn’t enough, we descended to find just a row of metal doors with people hanging about. Where were the trains? Behind the doors, of course. We entered the train, the doors slammed shut with a resounding clunk, and we were not getting out. Russian suicide prevention, or something else? We wouldn’t find out, but this was unlike any metro either of us had ever seen. The train skated along the tracks briskly, and after about 40 minutes, we arrived at our stop, the 2nd to last on the line. 

The plan was to meet our host there at the exit, but as we waited and waited, we both questioned why I hadn’t been more judicious in getting a description of this woman, or giving her ours. Clearly, we stood out; Brady, looking like a proper English gent in his camel overcoat, and me with flat boots and round eyes taking it all in. Everyone was staring. Suddenly, from nowhere, Polina appeared. 
An unforeseen incident with her electricity forced us to her mom’s apartment around the corner where the three of us met her mom and Jack, the English Spaniel. Polina and I were about to be up to our elbows in Beef Stroganoff and Turkey Kotlety, so we got straight to work. Neither of these dishes required any special cooking equipment though, only time. The three of us had a chat before we got started regarding the American interpretation of Beef Stroganoff versus the Russian one. Being that it was invented by a chef in this city, I can without a doubt say, we’ve got it all wrong.

I didn’t see a can of mushroom soup anywhere today, nor did I see a mushroom for that matter. Egg noodles need not apply, as they’re not even a part of this dish. Our stroganoff included hand-pounded and sliced meet, an onion, olive oil, a bit of sour cream (save it people), Russian herbs (which Polina so graciously sent us home with), and salt and pepper. C’est tout. The dish truly could not have been easier and I can imagine having it on a cold winter’s night, assuming we actually have a winter this year. Based on current reports, it sounds like a long-shot. We boiled off some potatoes for a mash on the side, and there, my friends, you have the real Beef Stroganoff. Where we ever came up with this concoction over noodles is beyond me. 

Next to our Beef Stroganoff and potatoes were massive patties called Kotlety. We ground the meat by hand, and passed all the other ingredients (garlic, carrot, onion, and a bit of white bread) through the meat grinder as well. Cinchy. Before forming the mixture into patties under water, we added in an additional Russian dried herb and salt and pepper, and then sauteed them in frying pans until they were golden brown. This was truly winter fare, and perfect for the flurries falling outside the window.

At the conclusion of our cooking, Brady, Polina and I sat down to a lovely lunch, and talked about all things everything. Polina has Russian citizenship, but was born in London so she’s a British national above all else. We each shared our interpretation of St. Petersburg, discussed immigration in our countries, pondered what living in the Soviet time must have been like, and laughed about how Russians can’t queue or drive for shit. She regaled us with some hilarious stories about being pulled over for driving on the wrong side of the road here (they drove over from London, and she drives on the opposite side in her car), and it was a really fun afternoon. 

If you’re headed to Russia and fear the food, don’t worry. It’s really nothing more than meat and potatoes, just like my Irish ancestors noshed on in a similar effort to keep warm in blustery times. The cooking digs today were a real indication of what Soviet Era Russia must have looked like. From the austere apartment buildings with unfinished concrete hallways and stairwells, and the metro experience from start to finish, we were whisked away from European Russia and transported to decades of yesteryear. I’m realizing more and more that traveling through the lens of cooking is a fantastic way to move between countries. Fantastic and different. Really.

St. Petersburg Cooking Class Secured

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I’m very excited to report that I’ve secured us a cooking class in St. Petersburg, Russia. We will be cooking with an English ex-pat on Saturday, November 6th. 

While I won’t get to practice any of the Russian that I will undoubtedly learn in my upcoming class, we are hoping to take away some newfangled knowledge about Russian cuisine, and some recipes we can replicate at home. I know we will be bringing home a complimentary sack of Russian herbs. Can’t wait to see what those are! 

Stay tuned for the blog post after the class. There will likely be some cooking taking place in Paris again as well…

The Hills

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No, not the those hills with the artificial characters who are completely devoid of personality, humor, and often times, taste. I’m talking about the Etyek region of Hungary, a hilly town about 20 minutes from central Budapest. Here, dry white wines reign supreme, and I spent the day tasting them and a few of their red partners in crime with Gabor and Carolyn Banfalvi of Taste Hungary.

The Etyek region is a relative baby when it comes to wine making. It got its start in 1990, and wines from this region are notoriously high in acidity. We began our day at Kattra Pinceszet winery, just off the main drag. Here, we sampled a chardonnay, pinot grigio, olasz (Welsh) riesling, pinot noir rosé, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. The tasting room was set ablaze by a rather charming fireplace, but that was really all that set any of us on fire at this winery. The wines were okay, but they paled in comparison to those we’d find later in the day.

After closing the door on the first winery, we continued up the hill towards Hernyak Birtok. WHAT a winery. For those of you in California who are imagining a cavernous-like structure with enough room for your graduating high school class, well, that’s not what this was at all. Upon arriving and surveying the menagerie of cats and dogs that roamed about the property, we were whisked downstairs with glasses to the most charming barrel-lined cellar to start our tasting. Here, the winemaker would extract the wines from the barrels by mouth and fill our glasses with his handmade love.

Hernyak Birtok is an artisanal winemaker that employs relatively minimal technology. They specialize in late harvest wines, and only net about 12,000 bottles per year. Some are sold in hotels in Budapest, but most are sold directly from their winery and you have to drive there to get your hands on the prize. “Birktok” means “estate” in Hungarian, and while their property wouldn’t conjure up images of anything Kardashian-like, their “pajama vineyards,” as they call them, are unequivocally charming and breed unrivaled wines.

We ate an amazing lunch here of porcini mushroom soup, gnocchi-like potatoes with a dill sour cream (I avoided much of it, naysayers), pork knuckle with a white carrot confit, and a corn bread dessert with fruit and homemade whipped cream. This was all compliments of their son…the chef in this undisputed family affair. The wines at Hernyak Birtok were first class, and we sampled a sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, grüner, cuvée of pinot noir and chardonnay with sauvignon blanc added later, and a pinot noir. All were divine, and Kattra’s wines didn’t hold a candle to what we had here. In the background, Bijou, their dog, wrestled with one of their cats in a chair adjacent to the fire. It was like being at home…only thousands of miles away.

After begrudgingly packing up and saying bye, we made our way to winery #3: Kezes-Labos. It took a bit of an effort to find it among the rows of storage cellars, but when we did, Carolyn and I both agreed that the narrow, rock tasting room shaped like a barrel was a lovely respite from the intermittent snow. Sure, the winemaker may have been a bit rough around the edges, but he had us laughing with his method for drinking palinka, a Hungarian apricot brandy. “You take it as a shot, and make sure to breathe it out, and that’s how you don’t get drunk.” Hmmmm. The jury’s still out on that one, sir, but the rest of your wines, a really sweet late harvest chardonnay and a regular chardonnay, were quite good.

To finish up our day, we nestled in at Rokusfalvy Fogado, a restaurant, tasting room, and bed and breakfast that weren’t all in the same place. We were briefly met by the winemaker here, and learned that after a career in marketing, he opted to pursue his passion and started the winery and restaurant. Sounds familiar! Being that Etyek is a primarily white wine region, again we sampled a pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, cuvée of chardonnay, grüner and pinot grigio, rosé, but also a first vintage pinot noir from 2008. They were magnificent, and paired nicely with the pinxtos his chef prepared for us.

I got more than my fill of Hungarian wines today, but only tackled a small wine region that was easy to reach from Budapest. As it turns out, there are even more wineries about two hours away from here, so it seems like a third trip to the city is in the cards. You know what they say, “three’s a charm.” So, that settles it. Who’s coming with me?

Taste Hungary

Next stop: Krakow

Živoli in Zagreb!

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Živoli means “cheers” in Croatian, and it’s a fitting title after the day I had today. It was bookended with libations, starting with champagne in the morning and a visit to a winery in the afternoon. And let’s not forget about the grappa breaks we took in the middle of cooking. It’s a wonder I made it out of the kitchen and into bed alive.
I set-up this adventure with the help of Alan Manic from Secret Dalmatia. He specializes in gastronomy and tours in the Dalmatia region of Croatia. However, upon asking him for help in locating something in Zagreb, he took on the challenge and provided me with a fantastic chance to cook in an amazing restaurant.
Today was busy. BU-SY. It was an absolute taste test about what it would be like to own a restaurant or work as a chef. I arrived at Restoran Klub Gastronomada at 8:00 a.m. to find Chef Sime and Chef Grger waiting for me upstairs. As we drank said glasses of champagne, they told me a bit more about their restaurant and consulting company. The restaurant only uses organic ingredients, and everything is shopped for daily (we would do this later on at the nearby market). They make their food to order (including the risottos), and only serve Croatian wines in-house. The restaurant space is quite small, but they also have three banquet rooms where they can seat more people and hold special events. And on the wall of the dining room was a place for artists to display their work, which they change periodically. It was warm, imaginative and inviting, and I was happy I’d be having my lunch in such a classy place.
So, what did we have for lunch? Well, we started by making the dough for our bread so it could proof while we visited the market. It was really simple, and Chef Sime was happy I’d taken a pasta making class because the kneading techniques were exactly the same and I didn’t even need to be supervised. Homemade bread dough was completed in 10 minutes or less. Bread aside, we headed to the market where we picked-up seven types of fish for our soup (I dubbed the soup “The Seven Seas”), produce, paprika cheese, veal, and a few other things. Chef Sime seemed to know everyone there, presumably because they visit the market everyday, and as he was explaining things to me, the purveyors would hand over a sample for each of us to try. I had some amazing corn bread, a delicious piece of sausage, and a piece crispy bacon fat that’s used for flavor in recipes.
We carted our loot back to the kitchen, checked our dough and got our bread into the oven, and then went straight to work on the fish soup. He showed me how to properly clean the fish, and I took over de-scaling them and ripping out their innards with my bare hands. It was fun! As I worked on that, he created the base for the soup with a mirepoix of sorts, tomatoes, potatoes, garlic, orange peel, bay leaves, and a bit of Croatian olive oil. From there, we added in the fish (heads and all), a bit of white wine, and covered it with vegetable stock to simmer away in the background.
In the foreground, we grated the paprika cheese and coated it with flour, beat up some eggs, and trimmed the veal into chops. These would later be breaded and cooked. We trimmed up the amazing Croatian greens we purchased, and put those into a giant pan with a bit of garlic and olive oil, and then sprinkled them with nutmeg. They cooked down like spinach, and made a bed for our veal chops and a neighbor for our boiled red potatoes.
We started lunch by sampling four Croatian olive oils with our homemade bread. We were both really proud of what came out of the oven, and everyone agreed that it was fantastic with the olive oils! Alan and his friend Igor joined us for lunch in the main dining room, and our menu was magnificent. It was so simple and relaxed with reflections of the Mediterranean, and there’s no arguing that what we made was healthy. We had a different wine with each course that was expertly paired, including a port-like wine and an aperatif at the end.
For dessert, we enjoyed a pie made from olives. I’m sure this sounds bizarre, but if you have the chance, take a page from the writers at The Boston Globe and visit Klub Gastronomada for the opportunity to taste it. Sweet and savory collided in this dessert in a way that I plan to replicate when I get home. I’m hoping if I beg and plead, they will give me the recipe. It was THAT good.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, we finished up lunch and drinks, and Chef Sime, Alan and I headed to Korak Winery in Samobor, about 20 minutes outside the city center. High up on a breezy hill, we sat with the winemaker in the most charming little tasting room. The fireplace blazed on in the corner as we made our way through about five bottles of wine, and sampled his wife’s homemade cornbread and cheese. We chatted about food, blogging, cookbooks, and we each gave our opinions about what we tasted in each wine. I think my palette is improving because I was tasting all sorts of notes that were evidently spot-on (or maybe they were just saying that).
I learned an incredible amount about Croatian food and wine over the course of the day thanks to Alan, Chef Sime, and Chef Grger. Croatia is a place I will no doubt be back to, possibly even on this trip. I wasn’t able to make it to Dalmatia or Istria in the south, and according to all of them, they are must-see parts of this relatively small country. Hospitality seems to be a way of life here, and the people…well…the people are the most welcoming of hosts.
Secret Dalmatia
Restoran Klub Gastronomoda
Next Stop: Budapest